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Democracy and Fascism

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Issue: 12 Section: Arts Australia Topics: democracy

December 22, 2003

Democracy and Fascism

Myth, Propaganda and Disaster provokes controversy in Australia

by Lynda Ng

reichstag.jpg
The burning of the Reichstag by terrorists allowed Hitler to sieze power. Myth questions similar themes in contemporary America from an Australian perspective.
Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America: A Drama in 30 Scenes made headlines because each of the major theatres in Sydney failed to pick it up for 2004, even though it completed successful runs at both The Playbox Theatre in Melbourne and The State Theatre Company in Adelaide. Australian playwright Stephen Sewell only increased debate on the issue by claiming that he was 'being blocked from the main stages here in Sydney.' He said, 'I am being blocked, have been for some time, because I don't fit into their agendas, which is to reinforce their audience's beliefs.' Myth was finally brought to Sydney audiences during a three-week run at The Stables on a voluntary, co-operative basis by cast and management.

So, why all the controversy?

The main character in Myth is Talbot Finch, an Australian expat living in America. As Max, a fellow Australian tells us, Talbot's life is good. He has a cushy academic job in the politics department of a prestigious American university, an American wife who married him so that he could stay in America and a beautiful apartment that offers a clear view of the site of the former World Trade Centre. It's a life that Max envies and wants.

Talbot, however, is less than satisfied. He has written a book, which lends its title to the title of the play, and seems almost unaware that his argument outlines the evolution of contemporary America into a fascist state similar to Nazi Germany. Talbot, in fact, seems unaware that he is living in a post Sept-11 world, and that words are no longer innocent – a point that is driven home to him when a stranger enters his office, threatens him with a gun and bashes him in the head. This incident sets Talbot down a spiraling path of paranoia, conspiracy and fear.

Myth aims to explore both the environment within America and the relationship between America and Australia post Sept-11. The character of Max encapsulates Australia's subordinate role – easy-going, careful to say the right things, eager to learn the American way. The stranger who continues to harass Talbot is almost supernatural – he is a government agent never seen by other characters, so elusive that he could almost be a figment of Talbot's imagination. Talbot himself is an idealist whose beliefs in social justice have become a threat, to himself most of all.

Parallels are drawn early in the play between Talbot's situation and that of Joseph K. in The Trial. Like Joseph K, Talbot doesn't understand what his crime is. He is incapable of seeing the practical implications of his theories, nor can he see how dangerous other people find the truth.

Once he recognizes that he is being persecuted, he finds that other people have the same reluctance to believe that they live in a world that continues to resemble a fascist state. When he tries to tell his wife that somebody is trying to silence him she dismisses this notion saying, 'This is America!'. The implication being, of course, that things like that just don't happen in America.

Is it true that Sydney theatre companies were simply too scared to bring this play to Sydney audiences? Is it a reflection, perhaps, on the extreme conservatism and reluctance to face up to harsh realities that this very play attacks?

The artistic directors of major Sydney theatres have denied Sewell's charges that Myth was deemed too contentious for the Sydney stage. And, while Myth does succeed in raising important issues about the willingness of the public of both Australia and America to accept that their countries are the defenders of freedom ad democracy, it is possible to see why all the major theatres declined to include it in their 2004 programs.

While the first half of Myth is an exciting mix of social commentary and interesting suspense, the second half descends into a series of monotonous rants that take on the one-sided and dogmatic appearance of another form of propaganda. Myth played to sell-out audiences at The Stables. It is hard to tell whether it would have been as successful during a longer run in a larger theatre, without the controversy surrounding its performance.

Lynda Ng is currently studying at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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